The UK is undergoing a surge of enthusiasm for cycling. The number of London residentscycling to work doubled between 2001 and 2011. This has been triggered by a number of factors, including high profile sporting success at the Olympics and the Tour de France, growing recognition of health benefits and public cycle hire. (A recent BMJ study found positive health impacts overall through London’s bicycle sharing scheme, particularly for older users.) A major factor has been active encouragement through policy and by employers. The Cycle to Work Scheme, introduced in 1999, allows employers to loan cycles as a tax free benefit. CycleScheme, one of the UK’s largest providers, has put an estimated 425,000 bicycles on the road to date.
However there are increased (at least perceived) risks, suggested by the growing reports of cycle deaths on roads in recent years. Increased press coverage encourages this perception. But are Britain’s roads really becoming more dangerous for them? If you take a long period, from 1979 to 2012, the number of serious incidents involving cyclists has nearly halved. The concept of ‘safety in numbers’ may be involved here, with figures suggesting that casualties per mile ridden have reduced because more people are cycling. Yet it is patently evident that one casualty is still too many.
Perceptions, though, can be hard to shift. To encourage greater numbers to take to the saddle, we may need to think more seriously about addressing safety concerns. Some proponents argue that helmets should be a legal requirement, but others suggest a drop in cyclists may result, resulting in less value for public health. Evidencesuggests those wearing helmets are less risk averse and therefore more prone to accidents, but this is a contentious issue.
Companies can play an important role here. Certain industries with heavy goods vehicles are taking preventive measures, but the broader business community also has a role to play. By encouraging employees to cycle, companies contribute to their health and wellbeing. But they could also consider issues around safety. Many people learn to ride bikes whilst at school, yet there is no formal course. Would the Cycle to Work scheme (and encouragement by employers) offer a good mechanism to implement safety courses? Or much like the paradox with helmet laws, might this reduce uptake for this important, healthy form of transport?
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